On the eve of the referendum, Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer Ben Abbatangelo shares some final Blak thoughts.
As a Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk writer, ideas often flow like our waterways. We’ve been keeping, holding, and telling stories for many millennia. Despite now speaking a foreign language, where the words jump from my tongue instead of roll off it, a blank page excites me – no different to an artist preparing to transform a clean canvas.
But penning this piece has been an anomaly. On the eve of the referendum, I can feel my inner conflict. And yours too. The words have been hard to find and once they’re found, it’s as if they don’t want to stay on the page. Like nails on a chalkboard, the friction is palpable.
Over the years though, I’ve learned that tension is a necessary sequence of transformation, and that by intentionally leaning in, chaos is a catalyst for clarity. On the eve of referendum day, with record enrolment numbers and millions of people already casting their ballot, there’s a few thoughts that are clearer than ever.
We hail from hundreds of politically distinct nations, each with unique timelines, experiences and relationships with the Crown. Despite the state's systemic and multi-generational attempts to assimilate us into the mainstream, we have never been homogeneous; nor have we ever wanted to be.
Unfortunately, the contrived narrative of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” has been rampant throughout the campaign and it must be forcefully rejected. Not only is it harmful and short sighted, but patently inaccurate. If we are to maintain right relation beyond this referendum, then we must be disciplined with providing each other the sovereignty of thought to engage with this moment however we please.
For non-Indigenous people, constitutional recognition might be a simple proposition; so too the language on the ballot paper. But as Emeritus Professor Larissa Behrendt recently noted, our community is engaging with a myriad of other and more complex questions that often have contradictory answers.
This means that when it comes to our referendum positions and voting choices, there is no hierarchy. Each of our positions are valid and overwhelmingly borne out of an enduring love for community, Country and kin. Mob that are passionate about a Yes vote aren’t ‘sellouts’. Those that are staunch opponents of the proposed form of constitutional recognition aren’t ‘idiots’ who ‘haven’t been doing the work’. And those who are abstaining from engaging altogether aren’t ‘selfish’. I say this because it is often how we are labelled. When we remind each other of this, we fortify. When we don’t, we fracture.
We mustn’t lose sight that nobody loves Blackfullas more than Blackfullas ourselves. Because when the votes are counted and it’s all said and done, it’ll be us picking up the pieces. Shoulder to shoulder, we will be responsible for rebuilding out of the rubble and maintaining the enduring fight to reclaim our rightful place.
This difference is displayed in Noel Pearson’s recent admission. At a speech to the private King’s School in Sydney, Pearson said: “Frankly, the voice is a proposal so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it… I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it. More fool me.”
For us, the referendum is a temperature check on our own theories of change and political acumen. It probes the health of and energy within our movements. It’s a test of our relationships with ourselves, each other, our ancestors and future descendants. It’s about what we’re willing to compromise and the lengths that we’re willing to go in pursuit of emancipatory or incremental change. It reveals the gulf between what we deem to be inadequate and sufficient; the lines we’re willing to hold and the ones that we will cross. It’s about the conviction that we have in ourselves and each other; and how we define, uphold and enact our sovereignty. Do we envisage a world where we are successfully self-governing or are we content with being governed?
For the 97%, who Pearson admits this proposal has been designed for, it’s a different litmus test. Whilst it feels like the nation is looking in at us, it’s the character of the colony that is on trial. Are they committed to romantic reconciliation and its unfounded ideas of progress, or will they rip off the liberal mask and proudly display its fascist face? Will they display a morsel of courage or a mountain of cowardice? Whatever the majority decides, this moment reveals more about them than it does about us.
Without understating this critical juncture, it’s important to know that the sky isn’t going to fall in on the 15th of October. Although I understand the ‘Yes’ campaigns gamesmanship, referendums are notoriously hard to win and I’ve been concerned by the messaging that this effectively ‘our one and only shot.’
If a ‘No’ vote prevails, it isn't the end of the road. For many, the rejection will sting and the consequences of this referendum will no-doubt linger for longer, but I implore you to maintain belief in yourself and each other. There are always alternatives. And we must continue to reinforce this – especially with our young and vulnerable. Our power derives from and resides within our own ways of knowing, being and doing; not from colonial acceptance or validation.
Irrespective of the outcome, we are going to be forced to go within. This is the colony – disillusionment is a given. We know that if the referendum receives a double majority that the Voice isn’t the antidote to the structural challenges that plague our communities. This has been frequently conveyed in the run home to referendum day, as politicians and campaigners reassert how miniscule the proposal is to sway non-Indigenous voters.
History is alive and as Professor Gary Foley recently reflected, a ‘Yes’ vote will inevitably lead to the same disillusionment that followed the successful 1967 referendum. No different to 67, we will be wholly dissatisfied with the pace and scale of change. There is a fair argument that a resounding ‘No’ vote brings forward the inevitable; forcing us to go back to the drawing board to resurrect a strategy that enables us to rise up out of the belly of the Empire.
Whatever the outcome, the sun will rise and so will we.